NAIROBI, Kenya, January 16 – They may not have reached the heights of 2002 but the Harambee Stars class of 2009 deserve full credit for their efforts in the just concluded Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) Senior Challenge cup where they lost to Uganda 1-0 in Tuesday’s final.
Their reception at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport did not match up to what the Kenya’s Olympic team were treated to on their arrival from the Beijing games last year but Francis Kimanzi’s team were assured that their achievements in Africa’s oldest football competition did not go unnoticed.
What surely went unnoticed was the presence of Stars strikeforce particularly in the group stage of the competition where two of their games ended in barren draws against Sudan and Zambia and edged out Burundi 1-0 from the penalty spot.
Their 5-1 thrashing of Djibouti in their third group match seemed to jump start the likes of 2008 Kenya Premier League (KPL) Golden Boot winner Francis Ouma who finished as the tournament’s second top scorer with four goals.
However, much was not read in to the scoreline as it was against the poorest side in the tournament which unsurprisingly had the most porous defence.
Kenya’s defence was the complete antithesis as it leaked only two goals throughout the tournament, against Djibouti and the Cranes in the final both of which can be attributed to lapses from the unit which was spearheaded by captain Edgar ‘Fighter’ Ochieng.
Ochieng’s tenacity at the rearguard coupled by the imposing presence of George Owino and the towering Joseph Shikokoti and the grit of John Njoroge repelled the best of what East and Central Africa had to offer including defending champions Sudan.
A solid defence complimented by an industrious midfield was the foundation Kimanzi employed throughout the tournament to supply the inexperienced Ouma and recalled forward Mike Baraza upfront.
Despite notching five goals between them, Ouma and Baraza seemed to struggle infront of goal as they failed to take advantage of several chances of scoring for majority of the tourney.
Kimanzi sidestepped the issue choosing to defend his game plan which he adopted following the limited time he had to coach the players.
“When you’re approaching a tournament like this, you go there to maintain the score line, not to go on the attack when the players are half fit because you have to consider the quarter and the semi finals if we do get there,” said Kimanzi who was overseeing his first CECAFA tournament.
“We were not the defending champions of the tournament so there was no need to start with a bang. We had to build the players’ fitness and follow the tactics and it got us to the semi final and I’m happy with that,” added Kimanzi who also coaches KPL champions Mathare United.
Stars did start the final with a bang at Kampala’s Namboole Stadium as Osborne Monday, Kevin Ochieng and Mulinge Ndetto put the Uganda under pressure with blistering attacks down the flanks with back up from Owino and Shikokoti who posed problems for their Cranes counterparts on corners.
Uganda’s goal in the final set the alarm bells within Kenya’s ranks and they started to employ the long ball strategy which served them well in the first round of the 2010 FIFA World Cup/Africa Cup of Nations but Ouma’s and Baraza’s lack of pace was cruelly exposed.
Dennis Oliech, Allan Wanga and Patrick Oboya thrived on those long balls which helped put their side in the second round of the qualifiers and their absence was felt during Tuesday’s final though captain Ochieng begs to differ.
“Their absence was not the reason we lost the final. The guys played their hearts out. We stuck to our game plan which meant building from deep and catching them (Uganda) on the counter,” said Ochieng.
The absence of the European based players will not worry Kimanzi too much as it gave him the opportunity to study the depth at his disposal ahead of the second round of the qualifiers in which they are due to meet Nigeria, Tunisia and Mozambique.
Keeper Duncan Ochieng continued to justify his selection ahead of Sher Agencies Noah Ayuko while Owino and Shikokoti can only grow in stature come the qualifiers.
The work rate of Monday, Kevin Ochieng, Frank Ajwang and Austin Makacha in the midfield should come in handy and with Jamal Mohamed who was benched for most of the tournament and Robert Mambo, Macdonald Mariga and Victor Mugabe set to comeback for the qualifying campaign, Kimanzi is assured of an embarrassment of riches in this department.